@ Wembley Arena, London, UK
14th February 2014
Review by Kirsty Birkett-Stubbs
For just under 30 years Dream Theater have basically been the hallmark of knowing how to play your instrument properly. And piss all over everyone else whilst you’re doing it. Doubtless without the insane talents of the founding three – imagine-if-he-was-born-with-an-extra-finger guitarist John Petrucci, bring-it bassist John Myung, and rhythm reservoir Mike Portnoy – they may not have been the creators of so much now-imitated prog, but leaning on a single individual won’t get you through three decades.
If that was the case then Portnoy’s departure would have been the big collapsing end. Instead Dream Theater drew in Mike Mangini, another super-skilled sticksman, and carried on crafting. See Dream Theater get music – listening to them is akin to a classical orchestra – it’s composed, the music is born of each instrument, and taking any one part away would leave a clear gap.
And that clearly resonates given the number who have turned out tonight. An evening with anyone is an immensely intimate affair; to do it with a band suggests something goddamn special – and on Valentine’s day as well. You’d at least be expecting flowers and a cuddle after.
The cinematic tones of ‘False Awakening Suite’ echo from behind a screen that takes us from “When Dream And Day Unite” through to last year’s “Dream Theater” in a montage of album covers. And as the last note falls like a blade through rope a cheer wells up in Wembley’s throat.
No introductions – Dream Theater (4/5) just pick up where the album covers left off and go straight into ‘The Enemy Inside’ with its hefty staccato riff laying the way for James LaBrie’s high parts and the finger-work of keyboard wizard Jordan Rudess. Continuing to swing back to the new stuff, there’s a whiff of the 80’s about the riff on ‘The Looking Glass’, like something Van Halen might have conjured up, and it’s a feeling that continues on the almost cheesy sway-with-me ‘Along For The Ride’.
When you’re spending three hours in someone’s company you need something to keep things flowing, and here it’s musicianship as opposed to audience participation. Which is probably the right way round – it’s far better to listen to quietly-spoken masters than loud mewling mediocrity – but the problem is the all-seated nature of tonight.
Atmosphere is what Dream Theater do brilliantly, and for the first few rows of die-hard pay-a-lots it’s clearly felt, but the rest of Wembley’s cavern is semi-static. Those on the floor stand, but are kept to their designated floorspace by the patrolling stewards, whilst the tiered seating is just… well sat. It creates a feeling of detachment from what’s happening below, and with it the danger that you’re just watching, as opposed to being involved.
The visuals are also a bit hit-and-miss, fluctuating between the slick animated video for the Inspector-Gadget-riffed instrumental ‘Enigma Machine’ to videos that look like someone left the Windows Media Player screensaver on. Couple that with a band who aren’t exactly billed for their wild stage antics – although given the complexity of what they’re doing you’re surprised they don’t need to sit down themselves – and it looks like a few in the back might descend into cinema behaviour.
But wait, Act II and it’s like Dream Theater went out back, had a pow-wow, and came back to rock your sitting socks off. There feels like there’s more intent behind the chugging-lilting opening to ‘The Mirror’ and by the sexy groove of the ‘Lie’ you wish nothing more than to kick the seat in front to pieces for some space to rock out. It feels that maybe this was all that was missing from earlier, a little more haphazard stacking of the set rather than putting all the long ones, or soft ones, or heavy ones in neat piles.
Actually there’s an even more obvious reason – much of the second act has been lifted straight from “Awake” and so has already been proven to fit together as a track listing. Well it is the 20th anniversary of the album, so why break what works. And there’s some new again with the multi-nuanced ‘Illumination Theory’ bringing the night to its second ending.
Watching Myung and Petrucci, at times their movements seem too slow and deliberate to be producing the sounds that they are, as though your brain has had to make everything a few paces slower just to understand it. And then other times the fingers fly and you’re entirely aware of what you’re seeing, and your jaw literally seems a few notches lower. Myung manages to make light work of a six-string bass as though he learnt it along with the alphabet, whilst Petrucci rightly is lorded as a genuine guitar hero – whether on six or seven-strings.
It’s truly mesmerising in a way that music made by robots never will be. This isn’t about the technical, it’s technique, and the human element is what makes all of Dream Theater so fascinating. It’s what makes them listenably complex.
And with the perfect amount of time left for it, for one second there is the fleeting hope that maybe the encore will be the 24-minute epic ‘Octavarium’ in full. A hope that dies the second Dream Theater started playing instrumental ‘Overture 1928’ instead, because it’s the 15th anniversary of “Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory” and that’s what we’re ending with. Doubtful that anyone is sad to be honest because the guitars, keys and bass create this perfect bubble that lasts right to the last notes of ‘Finally Free’.
If you’re not really ‘into’ Dream Theater or you were judging them on the first half alone, you’d maybe say an evening was too long. If you were tenting your pants from the start you’d probably say it wasn’t long enough. I’d say that if you left your other half at home to come tonight, it was well worth all the making up you’ll have to do. After all you were still spending it with the ones you love – they just happen to be five titans of prog. And lets face it they piss all over your boyfriend/girlfriend’s playing.
False Awakening Suite
The Enemy Inside
The Shattered Fortress
On the Backs of Angels
The Looking Glass
Trial of Tears
Along for the Ride
Breaking All Illusions
Lifting Shadows Off a Dream
Strange Déjà Vu
The Dance of Eternity